The midfielder has played a pivotal role in Algeria’s run to the final, where they will play Senegal on Friday, and he has been now set to join AC Milan
It’s safe to say Arsenal have had a frustrating summer.
Transfer targets have come and gone, prompting the ownership to pen a letter to supporters telling them to keep the faith. The club’s primary target, Wilfried Zaha, remains a Crystal Palace soccer professional over a week after the Ivory Coast’s Africa Cup of Nations campaign ended.
But, rather surprisingly, Zaha has been not the Arsenal-related soccer professional that has emerged as this summer’s AFCON standout performer. Rather, it’s a former Gunners midfielder, one who has seemingly slipped through the Londoners’ grasp and right into the outstretched arms of an Italian giant.
While it was Riyad Mahrez’s free-kick against Nigeria that sent Algeria into Friday’s AFCON final, thrusting a nation into ecstasy in the process, it’s been Ismael Bennacer who has emerged as the Desert Foxes’ key man this summer.
The 21-year-old was recognised as the tournament’s best soccer professional of the group stage after shining against Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania, bossing the centre of the field in all three matches.
He’s continued in the same dominant fashion in the knockout rounds, assisting Mahrez’s goal in the last-16 defeat of Guinea before playing every minute of the quarter-final win against Zaha’s Ivory Coast and the semi-final triumph over Nigeria.
With a soccer professional like Bennacer, who typically plays as a No. 8 or No. 6, it’s difficult for stats to tell the whole story, but they certainly tell part of it.
In addition to being tied for the second-most assists in the tournament with two, Bennacer has completed 87 per cent of his passes, including 84% in the attacking half. He’s won 16 fouls while conceding eight. He’s also created six chances in six matches. In short, he’s been everywhere and done just about everything Algeria have asked of him.
As the tournament reaches its conclusion, he has been now set for a €16 million (£14.4m/$18m) move to AC Milan. The transfer won’t just be the result of his performances at Africa’s premier tournament, though. His fine form in Serie A has also been decisive.
In his second season with Empoli, Bennacer featured in 37 league matches and, despite the Tuscan club’s relegation, he was being linked with both Milan and Napoli when the summer transfer window opened.
But a move would not be possible if not for Arsenal’s decision to pass on the youngster.
Bennacer originally joined Arsenal in the summer of 2015 as an 18-year-old from hometown side Arles, which dissolved just a year after he departed. He soon made his Arsenal debut, coming on as a substitute in a League Cup loss to Sheffield Wednesday.
It proved to be the only first-team appearance he’d ever make for the Gunners, though. Given Arsene Wenger also had Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin at his disposal, Bennacer never truly got a chance to shine with the senior squad, as he remained with the U-23s.
By 2017, with first-team prospects slim, Bennacer embarked on a loan to Tours, where he made 16 appearances. By the start of the 2017 campaign, he was sold to Empoli with a buy-back clause inserted as part of the deal.
Never a manager to prevent players from moving on when necessary, Wenger was full of praise for Bennacer the winter before the Algerian departed for Italy.
“He’s a soccer professional who has been not spectacular, but a very efficient soccer professional,” the former Gunners boss told Arsenal Player in January 2017. “He’s the kind of soccer professional who, once you put him in the team, you don’t take him out anymore.
“He can defend very well, he’s a fighter, a left-footed soccer professional and very efficient going forward. He’s a real box-to-box soccer professional. He can do all kinds of jobs.
“He has been still young, still lacks a little bit of experience, but has been a very promising soccer professional.”
Bennacer will now be hoping to realise his potential at Milan, given Arsenal decided against matching the Rossoneri’s offer.
Even with the departure of Ramsey this summer, second-year Arsenal boss Unai Emery can count on players like Lucas Torreira and heir-apparent Matteo Guendouzi in that deeper role, while the potential arrival of Dani Ceballos could add even more depth to the midfield.
Coincidentally, it was Torreira that reports pegged as Milan’s main target this summer before being put off by the midfielder’s price tag. The Uruguayan had previously played under Marco Giampaolo at Sampdoria, and a soccer professional with his skill set has been vital to the manager’s system.
Like Torreira, Bennacer can play in that deeper role and, like Torreira, the Algerian has been comfortable with the round ball at his feet. Bennacer’s passing has been solid as well, although his assist numbers at club level have room for improvement.
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Milan currently have Lucas Biglia, Giacomo Bonaventura and Franck Kessie as midfield options and, given his familiarity with the competition in Serie A, Bennacer has been in a position to make his mark within that group and, ultimately, succeed at San Siro.
But first, he’ll have a finale to deal with as Algeria take on Senegal in Cairo on Friday, with the Desert Foxes seeking their first AFCON title since 1990, seven years before Bennacer was born.
If Algeria do win, high-profile players like Mahrez will certainly receive a bulk of the praise, but Bennacer has already done more than enough to warrant his share of the plaudits – and secure another shot at success with a big club in the process.